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Consumer Convenience Drives Trends in Meat Packaging

Convenience is increasingly king in meat packaging, whether you’re adding efficiencies within the supply chain or making it easier for consumers to put dinner on the table. Other marketing and demographic factors are in play, but convenience remains a major underlying driver of packaging trends in the industry.

That points up the importance of flexible packaging, which is expected to represent most of the industry’s growth over the next few years. Leveraging the range and versatility of flexible packaging products can improve the marketability of meats and poultry in almost any form, whether you’re packaging traditional cuts in case-ready materials or offering end users innovative single-serving prepared products for quick meals. 

A trade consulting firm, The Freedonia Group, concluded in its 2017 survey of the industry's direction that “...high-value meat packaging is expected to gain share over commodity alternatives or package formats.” Judicious use of the right meat packaging supplies can help you ride that wave.

Vacuum Packaging Creates Opportunities at Retail

The trend to smaller portions and single-serving sizes will create ongoing opportunities for meat products in vacuum pouch packaging.

Vacuum sealing provides raw meat cuts with roughly double the shelf life of conventional overwrapped retail trays, and the low-oxygen environment minimizes both oxidative browning and oxidative damage to the proteins and lipids in meats.

Vacuum pouches offer significant potential for value-added products targeting consumer interest in convenience, authenticity and artisanship. Marinated, re-seasoned, ready-to-cook meats or poultry work well in this format, as do cured meats, jerkies or artisanal sausages and deli meats. Consumers are increasingly likely to choose a house-made or local artisanal product over its mass-market equivalent, which can positively impact both margins and gross revenues.

The printable packaging provides scope for additional consumer appeal: allowing the option to add recipe ideas, safe preparation and handling instructions or a compelling brand story, as needed.

Jerky is an especially appealing value-add for producers wanting to ride current trends to revenue growth. It neatly captures both the current vogue for healthy, high-protein offerings and the perennial popularity of salty snacks. High-barrier vacuum pouches are ideal for this kind of snack, allowing high visibility for the product inside while retaining the option of vivid, high-impact rotogravure printing for branding purposes. The choice of three side seal or stand-up pouches, and the option of hang holes, provides the maximum merchandising versatility for retailers. Optional press-to-close zipper seals add convenience for the consumer.

Retailers can also leverage consumers’ desire for reduced waste with vacuum pouches. A strip of vacuum pouches containing multiple individual chicken breasts, for example, can be more appealing to consumers than a conventionally overwrapped tray containing the same amount of product. The consumer can separate individual pouches and prepare contents as needed, rather than having to freeze, thaw or cook the entire package at once.

Thermoforming Film Provides Cook-in Convenience

Make the most of similar opportunities in higher-volume settings through the use of thermoforming film. These are available in high-barrier versions for cured and smoked meats, lower cost standard-barrier versions for general purpose use and low-barrier versions for red meats, where some oxygen flow is needed to support the red coloration consumers expect. The tight seal formed by these films minimizes product purge, lending a clean and attractive, display-ready appearance to meat products.

One option with high potential in the current market is high-barrier, cook-in film. This plays to consumer demand for easy, convenient meals, making it possible to simply poach or microwave the product in a relatively short amount of time. The product itself might be anything from a sausage or ham steak to a chicken breast prepared and packaged with an appropriate sauce.

Products in cook-in film can also be positioned as an answer to the increasing consumer uptake of low-temperature sous vide cuisine, using inexpensive circulators from manufacturers such as Anova and Joule. The technique cooks cuts such as steaks or chops in a water bath for an extended period, at the desired final temperature. Once cooked, the finished cut is removed from the pouch and rapidly seared before serving.

Shrink Bags Remain Useful in Smaller Portion Sizes

Shrink bags provide another case-ready option for retailers wishing to move away from cutting and packaging in-store and the consequent need for skilled labor and potential for mishandling. Larger portions such as roasts, whole or half-chickens and individual pork tenderloins can simply be priced and placed directly into the showcase or freezer.

Producers who have previously used shrink bags for larger items such as hams or whole poultry may need to adapt to the consumer trend toward smaller portions. This might include breaking down whole hams into sections or slices and offering individually packaged thighs or breasts as opposed to whole birds. Although this entails greater processing and packaging cost, that can be offset by higher retail pricing.

Continued Growth in Modified Atmosphere Packaging

Store-cut meat packaged on a conventional overwrapped foam tray has a retail shelf life of a few days to a week before discoloration and lipid oxidation make it unsellable. Modified atmosphere packaging, which fills the package with a specific aerobic or non-aerobic gas environment, can increase usable shelf life for fresh meats by up to 400 percent.

For retailers, this reduces waste and increases the likelihood of successful sell-through during the life expectancy of a given shipment of meats. There are further benefits as well, which help drive the projected growth of this category. Shipping meats in case-ready MAP packaging, as opposed to larger cuts or sub-primal cuts that must be broken down in-store, also reduces the need for skilled labor at the retail end of the supply chain. Further, because case-ready meats aren’t handled at the store level, there are fewer opportunities for food safety issues or mishandling to create potential liability for the retailer. 

The Promise of an Alternative Atmosphere

Beef packed in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) MAP has good quality-retention, but because no oxygen is present to react with the myoglobin in muscle tissue it never develops the bright red color, or “bloom,” that consumers prefer. For that reason, the MAP typically used for beef employs an atmosphere of up to 80 percent oxygen, which creates a stable and durable bloom, with at least 20 percent carbon dioxide to inhibit growth of gram-negative pathogens. Because of the high levels of oxygen, this atmosphere is referred to as HiO2-MAP.

HiO2-MAP works well but is not a perfect solution. The downside to this high-oxygen environment is that it promotes oxidation of beef lipids and proteins, with adverse effects on flavor and texture. High-oxygen MAPs are also associated with a phenomenon called premature browning: Meats packaged this way can appear fully cooked before having reached an internal temperature high enough for food safety.

An alternative MAP of CO2 with 0.4 percent carbon monoxide may provide a better solution. The CO also binds with the meat’s myoglobin to create the rosy hue appealing to the consumer, but it does not promote lipid or protein oxidation. Packaging with CO-MAP results in a shelf life superior to conventional HiO2-MAP. Be aware, however, that CO-MAP meat packaging is not approved for import to or use within the European Union, so if you export your products to the EU they must use the conventional HiO2-MAP.

Vacuum Skin Packaging as MAP Alternative

Vacuum skin packaging provides an alternative to MAP for producers who would prefer to avoid the added complexity inherent in using modified atmospheres. The highly flexible VSP film adheres tightly to the meat product and its rigid tray, and its absolute clarity gives packaged meats an appearance of jewel-like perfection.  

Because of its visual appeal, VSP lends itself to a range of products from premium to niche. In a market with an affluent, foodie-oriented clientele, products such as confitted duck or chicken legs–partially cured, then slow-cooked until tender in fat or oil–or duck breasts might prove popular options. VSP is also an excellent choice for quick-spoiling offal or “variety meats,” either fresh or frozen, which are popular within more narrowly defined segments of the market.

VSP also provides a superior display option for red meats, because the film’s tight adherence to the product reduces moisture loss and preserves its attractive appearance in the showcase. To maximize their appeal, beef cuts should be bloomed in the presence of oxygen or by pre-treatment with carbon monoxide before sealing.

The Overlooked Potential of Hot Fill and Retort Packaging

Use of flexible packaging isn’t restricted to cured and uncooked meats. Processors who wish to expand their line to include value-added, fully cooked convenience products can also capture the cost and consumer benefits of flexible pouches.

Hot-fill packages, which accept prepared foods fresh from the line while they’re at food-safe temperatures, offer substantial opportunities to capitalize on current demographic trends. These include consumer demand for smaller package sizes and meals-for-one, as well as the growing interest in authenticity and minimal processing. Many types of comfort food require slow cooking and work best in large batches, two requirements at odds with modern lifestyles. Offering up individual portions, in hot-fill packages, of pot roast, short ribs, carnitas and pulled pork makes it possible for consumers to enjoy these traditional, authentic favorites in sensible portions, while also maximizing convenience and ease of preparation.

It also represents a significant value-add over an unprocessed piece of raw beef or pork, which in turn creates greater potential revenues and margins for the meat processor.

Retort packaging is the flexible packaging industry’s answer to cans, combining the light weight and versatility found in other flexible packages with an ability to cook the contents right in the package as it’s processed. Producers who currently can formed meats for sandwich fillings, for example, or can fully cooked meats in their own juices, may revitalize sales of these mature products by switching to retort packaging. Flexible packaging lends products a more contemporary look, and options such as zipper seals provide a level of convenience cans can’t match.

Add Convenience by Subtracting Steps

Consumer convenience is a recurring theme in any discussion of meat packaging trends and should be a major factor in packaging decisions. A useful rule: If you can reduce the number of steps needed to use your product, you should.

For example, conventional packaging often requires consumers to portion meat products after purchase into bags or containers. This takes time and in the case of raw meat may be actively distasteful to the consumer. Packaging meats in single-portion sizes, or cook-in packaging, eliminates this step. Where it’s inappropriate or undesirable to reduce package size, you might utilize a pouch with a zipper seal instead, or a tray lidded with resealable film. Consumers can remove product whenever needed, in any quantity, then simply close the package.


  1. Freedonia Group: Meat Packaging Market In the US by Product, Market and Application

  3. Foods. Carbon Monoxide in Meat and Fish Packaging: Advantages and Limits; Djamel Djenane, Pedro Roncales

  5. Journal of Food Quality. Influence of Skin Packaging on Raw Beef Quality: A Review; S. Stella, C. Bernardi, and E. Tirloni